The internal COVID data released by Grand Forks Public Schools administrators appears to confirm that case counts have been growing quickly within the district, raising questions about the district’s next steps as the pandemic continues to worsen in North Dakota.
And as the pandemic wears on, multiple school leaders describe a potential dilemma: is it better for students to head home or stay in the classroom, even as case counts continue to grow?
"The last thing I would ever want to say is 'Keep the schools open at any expense.' Gosh no,” School Board member Chris Douthit said. But he has the same concerns that school leaders expressed when students returned to class. How would closing school buildings affect working parents? What about students who can’t afford school lunches? Would it encourage kids to socialize without masks?
"It's not an easy situation in any of this,” fellow School Board member Doug Carpenter said. “So you just try to do the best you can and balance the competing things that are out there."
The district’s own numbers, released Friday, show that between Oct. 19-30 — a Monday-to-Friday span of two school weeks — about 1.4% of the nearly 7,000 staff and students who actually leave home and go to school tested positive for COVID (those numbers don’t count staff and students who work or learn virtually).
The 1.4% figure is running a little bit behind the rest of Grand Forks County, which saw about 1.8% of its population test positive over the same days, according to state Health Department records. On its face, that data appears to indicate that schools are safer for students than the average alternative.
But that 1.4% figure is also extremely broad, mixing in-building teachers, administrators and students, and offering just one number to encompass all of the district’s elementary, middle school and high school classrooms and more. It’s impossible for observers to know from that figure alone whether new cases are highly concentrated in just a few buildings or grades, or spread evenly across the district.
In a late Monday evening interview, conducted after this article originally published, Superintendent Terry Brenner said he would not currently describe any particular school in Grand Forks as a hot spot — that cases and contacts are relatively evenly spread out.
He did mention, though, that two schools had come close to closing since the beginning of the year, based on staff absences.
“It’s a broad brushstroke across the district. We’ve been watching, weekly, all of our campuses … and there aren’t any singular issues happening at one campus or two campuses,” Brenner said. “It just bounces around.”
When asked about the release of more detailed numbers, district administrators have repeatedly expressed concerns for student and staff privacy, pointing out the district’s policy against sharing medically sensitive information and citing legal advice to keep the data private. In a Monday email, a district spokesperson reiterated that position.
School Board Vice President Eric Lunn, a physician, also emphasized that he does not believe there is a high rate of contagion within the classroom — rather, that many in the district are contracting the virus elsewhere.
In his later interview, Brenner said that local public health officials told the district on Monday afternoon that they believe Grand Forks schools should keep their doors open.
The district also announced Friday that it counted 883 “close contacts” within the district. That number represents roughly one in eight staff and students learning in-person in Grand Forks, suggesting that a significant number of teachers and students have entered a 14-day quarantine.
When asked how this affects the district’s ability to provide in-person education, Tracy Jentz, a district spokeswoman, said only that the district continues to educate its students.
“We continue to provide in-person education to the students in our schools,” she wrote in an email. “Students who are absent from school due to COVID-19-related isolation or quarantine are assigned homework from their teacher(s).”
The school district’s continued ability to stay open appeared to be an important factor last week in the Grand Forks City Council’s passage of a mask resolution requiring their use in public — even though it carries no penalty for violators.
But on Monday, as Grand Forks County surpassed 1,000 active cases of the coronavirus, it was unclear how effective that new mask resolution would be.
"I'm concerned about our community right now, and you can quote me on that," Grand Forks Public Health Director Debbie Swanson said. "I think we could just be a few weeks behind some of the other major population centers in North Dakota that have had significant increases in cases and resulting hospitalizations, high numbers and, ultimately, some deaths. I think Grand Forks can do better, and we should do better, given all the resources we have here in the community."
Jackie Hoffarth, another member of the School Board, is a contact tracer with the Grand Forks Public Health Department. She said that, if the district were to send students home, it probably wouldn’t be a matter of student infection rates — it would be a matter of teachers’ exhaustion, their ranks thinned by quarantine and their nerves frayed by the demands of a pandemic.
“We're all stressed,” she said. “Having teachers cover for each other and those things can only happen for so long. I'd like to make a more predictable switch, rather than wake up and 25% of our workforce is not coming to school that day."